LEARNING TO ACT AT THE LLT
By Ed Tasca
(Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Judy King whose website Mexico-insights.com first ran a much longer version of this article.)
One of the entertainment treasures at Lakeside is its renowned Little Theater. Recently, I had the privilege of joining some very talented people at Lakeside Little Theater and got a chance to act on stage for the first time.
To truly appreciate the art of the little theater, you must understand that everything you see on the stage is fake, mostly made of Styrofoam, including, in some cases, one or two actors. Alcohol is really vinegar. Food displays are made of colored cork. Some of my hair came courtesy of shoe polish. Make-up masks the unsightly. In my case, it was so thick I believe I looked, from the audience, to be digitally blurred. Caught on the street in such garishness, I could have been left for dead by skinheads.
Memorizing lines. My first hurdle was to memorize my lines. For most, myself included, this means reciting lines over and over and over until everyone who lives with you hints about taking long tours through Central America. You find yourself helplessly reciting everywhere, from the morning shower until you fall asleep. You’re talking to yourself all the time, sometimes so intensely, you could actually trigger an intervention.
Blocking. Next, you learn blocking. “Blocking” is the theater’s term for assisting people in getting around the stage so that they aren’t bumping into one another or the furniture while they speak their memorized lines. For example, the actor has to learn where he’s supposed to be when he greets another actor. The line “Welcome, darling! Delighted to see you!” naturally has to be said at a place where the speaker can see and welcome his or her lover. If an actor is standing behind a potted nasturtium when he says this, the audience will giggle and start rooting for the nasturium.
Projecting. Next, you learn to project. This should be self-explanatory, and readily familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a football or hockey game. Everything you say on stage, you have to shout until you’re hoarse. Even a deathbed sentiment, such as “I feel at peace now, my child,” needs to be screamed into the actor’s face loud enough to be accompanied by a spray of spittle. All this screaming is done so that the guy who’s sleeping in the back of the theater not only hears you, but wakes with a start.
Costuming. Costuming is important, as anyone who has ever been to a toga party knows. Generally, the rule here is that you shouldn’t rush into accepting a costume because it’s right for your character and the period you are depicting. First concern should always be, does it fit you? When an actor is wearing a too-tight vest that allows only one breath per minute, he’s going to drop lines and possibly scenes. I myself was in the only shoes that fit the play’s 1930s setting, but which were two sizes too small, which occasionally raised my voice pitch to alto-soprano.
Another thing about costumes. They aren’t washed or cleaned from performance to performance, so over the ten days of shows under torrid stage lights, costumes can actually become microbial ecosystems and begin to decompose in mid performance. After the run of the show, I felt burying some costumes was the humane thing to do.
Backstage etiquette. While you the audience are watching the play unfold flawlessly onstage, backstage everyone is sitting around in nervous perspiration waiting for their next entrance. No one can speak, pace, get in anyone’s way, or do anything that might create sound or break another actor’s concentration. You go through a period vaguely similar to high school detention, but without the excitement. Then, suddenly, out of this zombie state, an actor will bound out from the wings chirping, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and the audience has no clue the singer had just been slapped to full alert and shoved on stage by the ever-vigilant stage manager.
Quick changes. Not surprisingly, for some actors, there’s the opposite of waiting around. These are the quick changes. Sometimes, a whole stage day will go by with a curtain closing and opening in 75 seconds of real time. An actor will have to change from last evening’s tuxedo into his early morning tennis outfit within 60 seconds. The challenge in such a rush is making sure the change is complete. So that you aren’t skipping out on stage “next morning” in whites and a tennis racket and still in your black socks and Italian loafers.
Superstitions. Most theater people are superstitious. Among a host of superstitions, the one familiar to most is that no actor must ever say, “Good luck,” however innocently the words may have been tripped. Such a miscue, it is believed, will jinx the entire show. The proper expression for theatrical well-wishing is “Break a leg.” I was told that this expression derives from the manner in which actors centuries ago would bow in acceptance of applause. They would bend their torsos on crooked and crossed legs (much like a curtsey is done today) while the audience applauded. Legend has it that one popular actor had received such a long and engaging ovation, requiring such a long and protracted bow, that he did indeed broke his leg. And so the wish today is for long applause, which might result in you “breaking your leg.”
I made the mistake of blurting out “Good luck” just before one of our show-times. Everyone within hearing range flew into such a panic, you’d think I’d said, “I may have an airborne infectious disease that causes blindness.” People who are normally emotionally-stable were whirling around in an exquisite frenzy, spinning three times and throwing salt over their shoulders, much of which landed in the eyes of other actors doing the same thing. Still others rushed out for a cigarette and a chance to caress their Hamsa amulet. I was apologizing up and down for the mishap, but remained unheard and unforgiven for the remainder of the evening.
The theater is a tough business, and not for the faint-hearted. The question that kept popping into my mind all the while I’d taken on this project was, “Is this how Shakespeare started?”